To train oneself to sit relatively still for a period of more than a few minutes is an extraordinary accomplishment. Most people have never tried to do it. Our normal practice, when we sit or stand for an extended period—when we are waiting for a bus, say—is to change position frequently. We will shift our weight from one foot or one buttock to the other, turn our heads, reposition our arms, cross and uncross our legs.
Experienced yogis also adjust their bodily posture, but do it at longer intervals and in ways so subtle that the movements are difficult to detect even when you are looking for them. That is as it should be. Until you are dead the body is never perfectly still, and the optimum position of the body for today’s conditions is a work-in-progress. For that reason it is necessary for the beginner to monitor and adjust the various elements of posture with some frequency until the work of fine-tuning becomes habitual and automatic.
Just to sit still, moment after moment, will require a certain effort and vigilance until the process of sitting quietly with attention to posture is fully assimilated. For one who is unaccustomed to it, to hold a given position for more than a very brief period will induce muscular fatigue. Bodily discomfort leads to the urge to move. Processes in the motor cortex and supplementary motor area of the brain prepare the nervous system to activate certain muscle groups. That anticipatory process is called a premotor or readiness potential. In time, out of many such subtle acts of planning an additional layer of muscular tension will arise. If that tension is not dispelled by repeated acts of relaxation, a feedback loop of discomfort and tension will force the trainee to break posture.
Learning to relax without moving is one of the primary skills to be acquired by the novice meditator. The least painful way to develop it is to attend with equal care to all the elements of posture. In brief, good posture is characterized by the following attributes, which can be recalled by means of an acronym. In optimum posture the body is
Relaxed: although special attention should be paid to the muscles of the torso, those of the scalp and face should not be neglected. Merely to notice the tension is often sufficient to dispel it. A head-to-toe scan can be performed periodically.
Upright: Extend the spine as though pulled upward by a cord attached to the crown of the head, or push upward against an imaginary weight resting on the crown; then relax. Strain on the lower back can be alleviated by placing a cushion beneath the buttocks only.
Balanced: The torso should lean neither forward nor back, neither to the left nor the right.
Stable: The ideal base for sitting is a triangle consisting of the two knees (or feet) and the buttocks. This can be achieved in a number of ways (see illustration).
Some teacher and schools include four more items in their checklist, as follows:
Breath is soft, regular, and natural. If it feels constrained or rough, it can be regulated by consciously relaxing the muscles of the chest and abdomen and/or by sitting up straighter.
Eyes: the gaze can be lowered to the floor or directed to the middle distance and unfocused. (For certain exercises the eyes are closed.)
Tongue: the foremost part of the tongue is laid gently against the palate just behind the front teeth.
Hands: The hands may be placed in one of several recommended positions, called mudra, and laid in the lap or on the thighs.
For the first few weeks or months of regular seated practice, it is recommended that the trainee cycle through these lists often. The order given here is for ease of memorization. You will settle on the order that works best for you. The task of becoming proficient in sitting is by itself more than enough to keep a beginner busy for a long time. Moreover it is, in and of itself, a complete method of cultivating mindfulness and comprehensive awareness that is not always recognized as such. It could be described as an alternative approach to contemplating the body (kayanupassana). Students of Soto Zen know it as the gateway to the practice of shikan-taza, “merely to sit.”
The details of posture will be described fully in a document to be made available as a PDF.
(To be continued.)